Lawton and le Carré share their information

Data basics
By CLEA SIMON  |  October 5, 2010

THE PRICE OF BETRAYAL: Lawton’s (left) new novel may be more conventional than le Carré’s (right), but it’s also more satisfying.

A Lily of the Field | By John Lawton | Atlantic Monthly Press | 400pages | $24

Our Kind of Traitor | By John Le Carré | Viking | 320 pages | $27.95

Information is dangerous currency. How we get it, what we do with it, and how we dismiss that which we would rather not know are hot topics, especially in contemporary thrillers. Spy master John le Carré has long dealt with these questions, chronicling betrayals both personal and patriotic. His British peer mystery writer John Lawton is now entering this tricky territory as well. In their new books, both authors ponder the hidden price of the data trade.

In A Lily of the Field, the seventh thriller to feature Inspector Frederick Troy, Lawton steps back from his usual post-WW2 London to 1934 Vienna. Here we meet Méret Voytek, a young cellist who has the ill fortune to run afoul of the Nazis. Before she realizes what is happening, the gentile (and gentle) Méret is in Auschwitz. The second half of the book jumps ahead to Troy's customary turf, where the cellist, a survivor, is linked to a triple murder that leads to Cold War espionage.

Our Kind of Traitor, like most of le Carré's recent work, is set determinedly in the present. His everyman protagonists, Gail and Perry, are a contemporary couple who, while on vacation, meet Dima, a Russian money launderer. Raised in the venerable vory criminal brotherhood, Dima has been betrayed by the new gangster elite, and he wants to barter his insider knowledge for sanctuary for his family. He's a violent man, given to depressed rages, and much more colorful than the repressed Perry or his ambivalent girlfriend. Old school all the way, he's chosen Perry as an exemplar of "fair play" English. But the new bosses also understand how to buy friends. And post-recession England is only too happy to welcome the funds a new international bank promises, despite its shady sources.

In both books, honesty is a luxury. The Soviet spies uncovered in A Lily of the Field range from true believers to Nazi victims who did whatever was necessary to survive, but even the hardiest ideologues have difficulty lying to those they love. In le Carré, betrayal is both more straightforward and more painful: Dima's defection goes against everything he believes, and he wears his lost honor like a hair shirt. He's a great tragic figure, torn apart by competing loyalties.

But though le Carré's book is the more complex and more topical, it's ultimately less satisfying. Much of the build-up toward Dima's defection is done via extended interviews in safe houses. Enigmatic characters who are not allowed much interaction conduct these interviews in long dialogues broken only as they fantasize about each other or attempt to decipher the machinations of their superiors. These extended scenes feel accurate, but they are often rather dull. Only when Dima appears, cursing and crying, does Our Kind of Traitor come alive.

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